Marcella of Rome (c. 325–410)

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Marcella of Rome (c. 325–410)

Roman founder of the first religious community for women in the Western church . Name variations: Marcella. Born between 325 and 335; died in 410 or 411; daughter of Albina; married briefly.

Born into the highest reaches of Rome's Senatorial aristocracy, Marcella of Rome could boast several consuls as ancestors. Her father died when she was very young and had little impact on her life. Marcella's mother was Albina , who seems to have avidly supported the decisions which molded her daughter's life. Married as befit one of her class, Marcella lost her husband after only seven months of marriage. Thereafter a much older ex-consul named Cerealis wooed the beautiful Marcella, reportedly seeking more a "daughter" to whom he could leave his estate than a true wife. Marcella declined Cerealis' offer of marriage, with the terse comment that if she wished to marry she would seek "a husband, not an inheritance." The religiously inclined Marcella then embraced widowhood and a life of Christian asceticism, abandoning the material pleasures so ingrained in the Roman elite.

With her mother and a good friend, Principia , Marcella retired to her house on Rome's Aventine Hill. There the three came to live by a rule adapted from the monastic foundations of the East, knowledge of which circulated in Rome largely thanks to the efforts of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. This prelate had published a widely popular Life of Antony (an Egyptian who was one of the earliest hermit monks) and had visited Rome in 340 after the Arian Christians of Alexandria had temporarily driven him from his See. His reports on the developing monastic movement intrigued Roman society and stimulated a desire to learn more about the rules which regulated the lives thus being led.

As time passed, Marcella's fame grew among the women of Rome, and many were driven to join her in a life of seclusion, albeit a seclusion lived out in the midst of one of the greatest cities of the world. Thus developed what was probably the first organized community in the West consisting of Christian women living according to a religious rule. This community, led and endowed by Marcella, devoted itself to an existence of charitable works, prayer, and the study of Christian scripture.

When the famous Jerome visited Rome between 382 and 385, he met Marcella and undertook the religious instruction of her community. Marcella's community was not alone in seeking out Jerome, but his work with Marcella seems to have begun his cultivation of Rome's wealthy Christian women whose financial resources he helped channel into the development of the Church and whose behind-the-scene influence helped stamp out the last vestiges of Rome's pagan tradition. Marcella took the opportunity to pose a number of philological and exegetical questions about Christian scripture which had bothered her community. Marcella was not only the founder of her community, she was also its leading intellectual; her acumen impressed Jerome, as did her willingness to stand up to his arguments when she found them to be wanting. Of particular interest to Marcella was the contemporary dispute over the orthodoxy of Origenism, or that approach to the Bible which encouraged the use of certain pagan philosophical principles to interpret the text. Since Jerome was among the most vocal critics of Origen's methodology by the 380s, and since he once called Marcella "the glory of the women of Rome," it is virtually certain that she was also inclined to reject Origen's theology. Jerome came to know Marcella very well, both through personal contact and through a regular exchange of written correspondence. After he returned to Palestine without her (other Roman matrons followed him to the East), he offered the opinion that Rome would not suffer because Marcella was more than competent to take care of any difficulties within Rome's Christian community.

After Jerome's departure from Rome, Marcella continued with the well-established routine of her life until 410. In that year Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, whose king, Alaric, sought out Marcella as a probable possessor of hidden wealth. However, by that time Marcella's estate had been disbursed through the funding of charitable works, thus frustrating Alaric's lust for plunder from that source. Nevertheless, not convinced that Marcella was poor, Alaric had her subjected to torture in order to discover where she had "hidden" the fortune that no longer existed. Even though Marcella bore great physical abuse nobly, she died of her wounds in either 410 or early 411.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California